On Ruling The Cycle

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a candidate for president who was doing daily interviews and talk shows, doing his level best to get his message out and to snag any publicity he could manage.  His numbers were rising after a long slump, and he’d just gotten some good press from an over-the-top goofy stunt he’d pulled at a live marijuana debate.  He was feeling pretty good as he walked into the radio studio.

And the hosts obviously loved him.  They were riffing off his favorite topics, giving him plenty of room for his trademark quirky sense of humor, and doing their best to showcase his undeniable intelligence.  They were wrapping up with a couple of lowball questions, human interest stuff, and he stumbled a bit, and then — then came the horrible moment.

“And what is “LEPO?” he asked.

And suddenly, without any warning, Gary Johnson’s run for president was over.  He was never going to win, but at that point he dropped from a reliable ten percent to just over three.  His opponents, particularly those allied with the Clinton campaign, seized on that clip and replayed it over and over again for three straight days.

It was a reasonable mistake; Aleppo may have been a vital location in the Syrian Civil War, but LEPO is the agency in Montana that reports to the state legislature about environmental issues — like the hot-button Keystone XL pipeline through that state which had been big news not long before.  And of course Johnson was entirely familiar with the Syrian civil war; he’d just held forth for nearly an hour on his view, that we’d need to work with Russia to resolve the conflict.  It was a brain cramp plain and simple.  And yet it sunk him — because he failed to control the media cycle.

You see, his slip happened on a Thursday mid-morning, and his campaign did nothing exciting for several days after, or for that matter even the least bit interesting.  He continued doing his round of low-end venues and two-bit talk shows, and he didn’t say a single word that wasn’t among his normal talking points.  The media make natural vultures; dying politician makes a tasty meal, and his slip was the big story for the next three days until Hillary Clinton’s near-collapse from pneumonia at a 9/11 event the following week.  And even then, while everyone was desperate for an update on her health, Johnson’s campaign remained normal, quiet, and boring, and there was nothing else to fill time except Aleppo.

The result was perfectly predictable:  While Clinton’s health improved, Johnson’s campaign tanked.

He wasn’t the first to collapse under the weight of bad press.  Most notably, Dr. Carson had horribly mangled the pronunciation of “Hamas”, calling it “hummus” a few times in what might possibly have been stage fright instead of a complete collapse into gibbering incompetence in front of the television cameras.  There were other occasions this cycle, but each of these two destroyed campaigns.  And yet, they were hardly the worst faux pas of the elections.

Yes, I’m talking about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has said some of the most insane things imaginable, has flagrantly reversed his positions — and never shows embarrassment, almost never apologizes, and only very rarely admits having been mistaken.  His entire primary campaign was a bare-knuckle fight with the media in interview after interview, and his campaign promises ranged from over-the-top to evidently insane, moving from one hotly-contested position directly to another.  In the end, the vast amount of free press he got by simply being willing to be persistently outrageous is what won him the party’s nomination.

I’m not going to get into every strange or insane or even horribly disgusting thing Mr. Trump said during the campaign; for one thing, we’d be here all day and I’d need to bathe before typing the conclusion.  More important, however, is this:  We don’t need to revisit the details because every single crisis was handled the exact same way.

Every time there was a major embarrassment, the designated campaign apologists would immediately get out and work on spin, and then Trump would respond — how precisely didn’t much matter, so long as he held a microphone and didn’t seem abashed.  If a moment of shame might occasionally show up on his face — I’m thinking of his apology for certain sexual remarks — he’d stay subdued for a few moments and then come out with something that was sure to grab headlines.  In this last instance, he loudly and fervently promised that, if elected, he’d see his opponent in prison, just as though he was a third-world tinpot dictator.

Which immediately changed the national media dialogue.  Suddenly, everyone was talking about Trump as another Kim Il-Sung or Papa Doc Duvalier, and the news cycle that weekend was all about how outrageous Trump was this time — and attempts to discuss the earlier scandal were for naught because, after all, by now that was old news.

Now, I haven’t brought you all this way to stop and ask you if you’re sorry you didn’t vote Johnson.  (You are, aren’t you?)  Instead, I wanted to focus on the method Trump used to divert attention, which is the same one he’s using right now.

Mr. Trump has been president for a week now, and every day there’s been a new big story, all about him.  After the inauguration, there was a big stink about the size of the crowd; Monday it was TPP withdrawal, Tuesday the pipelines, Wednesday immigration and his great big wall.  Today is Thursday and he did nothing of note — and the story is sticking to Mexico.  The media is running stories on immigration, the Wall, how half a dozen senior State Department officials either were fired or quit (depending on where you get your news), and the sudden cancellation of the meeting between Mexico’s president and our own.  And tomorrow it’ll be something else, something major that probably involves yet another foreign country.  (My guess is the UK, but it could be anything at this point.  All else aside, VP Pence is marching in a Right To Life parade, I hear.)

What’s happening is, a lot of fuss and bother is being raised by executive orders and the occasional proclamation and outrageous tweet, and it’s keeping us distracted from what’s going on in Congress, including the confirmation hearings for his proposed cabinet.

The hardest part for us is, each of these things is important, even vital.  There’s an escalating situation with Mexico that we know about and another with China over their artificial archipelago policy in the South China Sea.  The pipeline actions are big news but of little immediate consequence (see my earlier post) and his immigration orders are more than startling; they’re really quite troubling.

But because there are just so many things at once, we don’t know how to react.  I mean, seriously — are we going to go protest pipelines in Montana and the Dakotas?  Should we march in defense of sanctuary cities?  What about this proposed science march or the Park Ranger Twitter Rebellion?  We’re all losing track of just what exactly we’re supposed to be upset about today.

Which, of course, is the whole point.

Seriously:  Do you honestly think seventeen billionaires and longtime bureaucrats would have trouble with the paperwork for their cabinet posts?  These people have teams of assistants that love nothing better than reams of complex questionnaires filed in triplicate.  No, Trump and his team have planned for there to be a drawn-out battle in the Senate over each and every nominee until it becomes evident that the people holding up the business of government are known as the Democratic Party.  Why?  So any time he wants to distract us, he can complain about his unfair treatment on Twitter.

What gets me is this:  Is this somehow a mystery to the news media?  Is Congress missing the obvious here, against all common sense?

Well, to be perfectly fair, if we understood it a year ago, Trump would have had no free press and we’d be discussing President Clinton today.  So apparently this isn’t common knowledge, or at least people have yet to figure out how to deal with it.

The answer to that last would fill a good long book, and neither of us have the time.  So here’s some good simple rules to start with:

  1. President Trump will attempt to set the national agenda.  Don’t let him.  Go and make headlines yourself if you have to.  Organize a march; hold a protest or rally — not against him, because that gives him a chance to say something, but in support of your favorite cause.
  2. Stop complaining about every little thing he does.  If rude and outrageous were crimes, we’d be hanging the man at dawn.  Concentrate on the important things.
  3. Speaking of important things:  Pick your battles right now.  He’s going to fight on the environment, on labor, on immigration, on abortion, on gay marriage, on healthcare — every small group that makes up his opposition, he’ll attack and keep off-balance, because if he can keep people from organizing and cooperating, he’ll win everywhere.
  4. Be proactive.  There’s no reason at all to presume that, just because there’s a (nominal) Republican in office and a Republican congress, we can’t achieve positive social change.  Napoleon said that the only logical end of a defensive war is defeat, and he was right.  So find positive causes and support them.

Above all, stay active.  Politics isn’t something that happens to us once every four years, and it’s not just a topic for discussion at holiday dinners.  Politics is a civil right, and if you believe in freedom and justice that makes politics a sacred duty that must be practiced every day of your life.  (Here’s how.)

And be honest with yourself:  At some point you wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut or a dragon-slaying hero.  You know you did.  Well, now’s your chance, and the dragon has orange skin and either a rotten dye job or a truly horrible hairpiece.

NOTE:  There are several of you among my loyal readers who are pro-Trump.  Your friends may tell you how wrong this is, but I won’t; you picks your side and you takes your chances.  Just remember:  Next week it might not be a pipeline; it might be something you actually oppose.  So keep watching; pay attention, and always be ready.

Image copyright Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and DC Comics; all rights reserved.  Read Transmetropolitan today or else.

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